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Dennis Davis

Other Travis County Exonerations
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In the early morning hours of October 23, 1985, Susan Otten was awakened by thumping and moaning sounds coming from the downstairs living room of her apartment in Austin, Texas. She found her roommate, 38-year-old Natalie Antonetti, bleeding from a severe head wound.

Antonetti, who had gone to sleep on the couch, was conscious, but unable to speak. Eighteen days later, she died without saying a word.

There were no signs of forced entry. No weapon was recovered. The crime went unsolved for more than 20 years.

In 2007, Rebecca Davis called the Austin police department tip line and said that her husband, Dennis, was the ex-boyfriend of Antonetti and that in 1991, after a few drinks, he began crying and said he had “sinned against God and man.” Rebecca was in divorce proceedings at the time of the call to police. She said Davis refused to say what that meant, but she suspected he was talking about Antonetti.

At the time of the crime, Davis was a 35-year-old music producer in Austin’s burgeoning music scene. He had been dating Antonetti, but she had broken off their relationship just prior to the attack. Davis had admitted to police that he left a note on her apartment door sometime prior to—perhaps a day before—the crime which said:

“Natalie—You can go to hell + take Doug with you ․ If you don't have the brains + the self-respect to see thru his bullshit then ‘f[–––] you’ D.D.”

Davis had denied committing the crime and said he was home with another woman at the time Antonetti was attacked.

After receiving the tip, police reopened the investigation of Antonetti’s death. And in June 2009, Davis, who was by then living in Nashville, Tennessee, where he had moved to pursue his music production business, was indicted by a Travis County grand jury on a charge of murder.

Davis was arrested on July 2, 2009. Nearly two years later, in April 2011, he went to trial in Travis County Criminal District Court. The prosecution claimed Davis clubbed Antonetti with a bat. There was no physical or forensic evidence linking him to the crime.

Prior to the trial, Rebecca, who by then had reconciled with Davis, recanted her statement and sought, unsuccessfully, to block her testimony under the marital privilege. She told the jury that early in their relationship, she asked Davis to tell her about Antonetti. Rebecca said that Davis told her Antonetti had been too trusting, never locked her doors, and that one night somebody broke into her apartment and hit her on the head, causing her to eventually die. He told her that he suspected someone at Antonetti's apartment complex attacked her.

Rebecca denied ever hearing Davis confess to Antonetti's murder and denied that he owned a bat. She said she thought her call to police was anonymous, and that she made the report to clear her conscience, not to turn Davis in. She said she and Davis were having marital problems and she was “extremely mad” at Davis. Rebecca testified that her Buddhist mentor and therapist advised her to unburden her soul of guilt by telling someone what she thought Davis's statement meant. She said she did not know what Davis meant when he said that he had “sinned against God and man,” and that when she asked him about it, he would not reply. She said she had concluded that the “sin” Davis was talking about was that he had not spent enough time with his mother before she died of cancer.

During cross-examination, Rebecca admitted that after the investigation was re-opened, she told police of a 2005 incident where Davis was swinging an ax in the backyard. Rebecca said he was building a fence for their dogs and had been drinking too much. He got into an argument with her because the dogs had gotten out, and because she had not made sure dirt delivered to their yard was dumped in the right place. She said he began swinging the ax around and she “became really afraid” of him. She said that although Davis was not swinging the ax at her, she “felt like it was aimed at me.”

Gelinda Mudgett, who was Davis's girlfriend from 1987 to 1989, also testified. She said that in 1988, after returning home from going out, Davis curled up into a ball on the front porch crying and said, “I didn't mean to do it,” “I didn't mean to her hurt her,” and “I didn't mean to kill Natalie.” Mudgett said Davis said he did it because Antonetti was pregnant with his baby.

The defense pointed out that in pretrial conversations with police, Mudgett also said that she could not recall what Davis told her and was not really sure what he said. Medical records also showed that Antonetti was not pregnant at the time of the attack.

Mudgett further testified repeatedly, without defense objection, that Davis had been physically abusive to her during their relationship—once beating her unconscious and another time placing a gun to her head while she slept. She told the jury that because of his abuse, she was afraid to report his confession. Mudgett admitted that she had loved Davis and continued to live with him after he confessed to her. Mudgett also testified that prior to the confession, Davis told her Antonetti had been beaten with a bat and that he owned a small baseball bat, although he did not play baseball.

Austin police detective Tom Walsh, who took Mudgett's statement, testified that Mudgett told him that Davis was in a three-day rage and having a breakdown when he confessed the murder. Walsh said Mudgett's convictions about what she heard seemed stronger during his first conversation with her, but she called back a few days later saying she “kind of” remembered the conversation with Davis but could not remember what he said word for word. Walsh acknowledged it was odd for someone to wait 17 years to report an unsolved murder, and he wondered why it had taken her so long to make her statement.

Linda Bless, a mutual friend of Mudgett and Davis, testified that in 1987 she was at a party at Davis's house when Davis came out of a bedroom with a bat in his hand and appeared to threaten Mudgett with it. During cross-examination, Davis’s defense attorney asked whether Bless had ever seen Davis “do anything violent” to Mudgett, and Bless said she had not. She said that Mudgett and Davis had a “tumultuous relationship,” and admitted that Mudgett was not always truthful about certain things.

Mark Thomas Lewis, Jr., a friend of Davis at the time, testified that he saw Antonetti at a Sixth Street club called Steamboat Springs sometime between 11:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m. on night before she was assaulted. He did not recall seeing Davis there. Lewis said Antonetti left Steamboat near closing time at 2:00 a.m., along with Lewis and his friend, John Hallman. The three walked to a corner where they parted ways, and Antonetti seemed fine.

James Rose, another friend of Davis at the time, testified that he saw Davis with Antonetti at Steamboat arguing about Antonetti talking to another man. Rose was uncertain whether the argument happened on the Friday or Saturday night before Antonetti's assault in the early morning hours of Sunday. Rose also testified that a year and a half after the assault, while he was living with Davis and Mudgett, he found a small souvenir bat among some of Davis's things beneath a bed.

Susan Otten, Antonetti's roommate, also testified to seeing a bat at Davis's house after the assault. Otten testified that she also was a friend of Davis and worked for him at his recording studio. Otten said that she was home on October 13 around 2:30 a.m. when Antonetti returned from Steamboat and a club called Toulouse. Otten said that when she went upstairs to go to bed, Antonetti was dozing on the couch. At 4:40 a.m., when she got a glass of water from the kitchen, Antonetti was still asleep in the living room.

About an hour later, Otten said she woke to the sounds of thumping, a door shutting, and moaning from downstairs. She came downstairs and discovered Antonetti badly beaten and unable to speak.

The jury read a sworn statement that Davis gave to police a day later. In the statement, Davis said he dated Antonetti on and off for nine months but they recently became “just friends.” He said he last saw Antonetti before going to work in the afternoon on Saturday October 12, and she seemed fine. He spent Saturday night at his house with another woman, Amparo Garcia, who fell asleep on the floor while they watched television. Davis said he woke Garcia about 5:00 a.m. so they could go to bed. He thought he had been in bed just a couple of minutes when Otten called him at 5:30 a .m. or 6:00 a.m., in hysterics, screaming that “there was blood everywhere and something was wrong with Natalie.”

The jury saw videotaped excerpts from an interview Davis gave to police in 2008 during which he said he last saw Antonetti on the evening of Friday, October 11, 1985. Davis denied owning a small bat, denied committing the murder, and did not remember saying to anyone that he had “sinned against God and man.” Davis said he knew the number of times Antonetti had been hit because Otten told him about the sounds she heard on the morning of the assault. He acknowledged writing the note to Antonetti and leaving it at her apartment door sometime before the assault, possibly the day before the attack.

Davis said he must have written the note after seeing a man named Doug Robb walking with Antonetti, which made him feel jealous. But Davis stated he “got over it” quickly because he was in love with Garcia and was trying to get away from Antonetti, who he said had become “real grabby” and had begun yelling at him for not giving her enough attention. Davis admitted that “in the eyes of other people,” when he was younger, he sometimes went “into a rage.”

Amparo Garcia testified that she had kept a journal for many years, and based on her 1985 entries, she was “boarded up” with another man on the weekend of Antonetti's assault. She admitted that although there were no entries showing what she did on the night of October 12, 1985 or the morning of October 13, 1985, she said her journal would have reflected whether she spent the night with Davis. Terri Hurt, who lived in Antonetti's apartment complex, testified that she saw a “beat up” gray Chevy Malibu at 4:00 a.m. on the morning of the assault. She said she was walking to a nearby convenience store after working a late-shift when she noticed the Malibu, with two people inside, parked oddly across a couple of spaces in front of Antonetti’s building.

Dale Hopkins testified that he traded a blue, late 1970s Chevrolet Malibu to Davis in mid–1985 in exchange for some recording-studio time for his band.

The jury also heard a recording of a 911 call made by Donn Chelli, Antonetti's neighbor, who called minutes after Otten called 911. Unaware of the assault, Chelli said moments earlier he was walking back to his apartment from a nearby 7–11 store and he saw a 28– to 30–year–old man looking into Chelli's apartment window. The man was wearing a t-shirt with the name of a local band called “The Lotions” and carrying a club or small bat.

Chelli's description of the man—stocky, big-bellied, about 5 feet 10, weighing between 200 and 220 pounds, with straight, light-blondish, medium-length hair—did not fit Davis's physical description. A composite drawing was made during the initial investigation based on Chelli's description, but by the time of the trial the drawing was lost. Davis’s defense attorney read to the jury Chelli's 1985 sworn police statement in which he said the man “appeared to be in some kind of rage,” and although “he was calm, he appeared to have a lot of built-up tension inside of him.”

Chelli said that after he saw him, the man said something like, “You are the second person that has gotten into my shit.” When Chelli asked the man what he was doing, the man said he was looking at cats on the balcony. Both men walked toward the parking lot until Chelli turned right to enter his apartment and the man continued walking straight toward the clubhouse.

Chelli said that when he called 911, the dispatcher asked if his call was about the same incident that had just been reported. Chelli responded that he did not know, and the dispatcher told him that someone had been beaten at the apartment complex and that an officer would come to talk to Chelli. He said he went outside, and learned what happened from Otten and Goudie.

Chelli did not testify. However, the prosecution and defense jointly agreed that during two telephone conversations with the prosecution prior to the trial, he changed his written statement by claiming that the man he saw wearing the Lotions t-shirt was 6 feet 3 inches tall, that he never had any discussion with the man, and that Chelli never saw or spoke with Goudie or Otten on the morning of the assault.

Three of Davis's friends and former roommates each testified that Mudgett did not have a reputation for truthfulness.

Austin Police Officer Kenneth Cannaday testified that a month after Antonetti's assault, Chelli called to report seeing someone he had seen before in the area of the crime. Cannady testified that police searched for and eventually located the man, Gerald Kruz. Unlike Chelli's description of the man in the “Lotions” shirt, Kruz was 5 feet 8 inches tall, about 180 pounds, and had black hair and green eyes. Kruz was eliminated as a suspect in Antonetti's murder.

Charles A. Weaver III, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, testified for the prosecution as an expert in memory and eyewitness identification. He testified about “weapon focus” as part of the prosecution's effort to explain why Chelli must have been mistaken in his description of the person he saw. Weaver testified that in situations of extreme emotion and when people feel threatened, their attention tends to be drawn to the weapon and they can usually give a very good description of it, at the expense of other details. Weaver testified that weapon focus may cause a witness's memory about a person's physical features such as height and weight to be less reliable than a description of a weapon.

On April 15, 2011, after five days of trial, the jury convicted Davis of murder. He was sentenced to 36 years in prison.

In August 2013, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial because Davis’s trial defense attorney had failed to present evidence pointing to another man who lived in the apartment building as the attacker. The appeals court said Davis’s lawyer knew about the evidence, but failed to present it because he apparently misunderstood the law and thought he could not introduce it.

The appeals court noted that the suspect's roommate told police that the suspect told him that he had met a woman from apartment 188—Antonetti's apartment—at the laundry located near her apartment in early October 1985. The suspect told the roommate that the woman invited him to share a bottle of wine and they had sex. However, the suspect was angry because she threw him out of the apartment and discontinued any further relationship with him. The roommate, during the interview, asked the police, without prompting, whether a baseball bat had been used in the crime because the suspect used to keep one around the apartment although he was not into sports. When the officer asked to see the bat, the roommate could not find it in the apartment. The roommate said that on the night before the assault, he and the suspect spent time at a club called Maggie Mae's on Sixth Street, the street where Antonetti also was. Around midnight, the suspect left to take home a friend who was sick, and the roommate said he didn’t see the suspect until after the attack.

The appeals court said police questioned the suspect in 1986 while he was in custody for the aggravated sexual assault of a neighbor, which occurred three months after Antonetti's assault. The suspect initially denied ever seeing Antonetti or hearing of her, but then later admitted having seen her during walks to the apartment complex laundromat. The police reports also showed that the suspect failed a polygraph test, and the test examiner opined he was “100% certain that [the suspect] is responsible for the death of Antonetti.”

Significantly, the police reports showed that Chelli had positively identified the suspect as the man he saw with the bat outside Antonetti’s apartment near the time of the attack.

The appeals court said there was no “plausible, professional reason” not to pursue the alternative suspect as a defense in the case. Moreover, the court said that Davis’s trial lawyer also provided an inadequate legal defense by introducing Rebecca’s testimony about the ax incident, by failing to object to Mudgett's repeated testimony about Davis's abuse, and by “opening the door to further testimony from Bless about the bat-wielding incident” at the party.

Davis was released on bond on April 24, 2014 and in July 2014, District Judge David Wahlberg granted a defense motion for DNA testing of the evidence.

At the same time, Davis’s new lawyers, Jackie Woods and Tamara Needles, filed a motion to dismiss the indictment for failing to comply with the speedy trial requirement. In December 2014, the prosecution filed a motion to dismiss the case “pending further investigation.” Judge Wahlberg denied that motion. In July 2015, Davis’s lawyers filed an amended motion to dismiss the indictment on speedy trial grounds.

On September 9, 2015, Judge Wahlberg granted the motion and dismissed the case. The prosecution appealed and in October 2017, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Judge Wahlberg and reinstated the indictment.

On February 20, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/19/2019
State:Texas
County:Travis
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1985
Convicted:2011
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:36 years
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:35
Contributing Factors:Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No